Sidley’s Capital Litigation Project ensures that inmates incarcerated on death row have access to high-quality pro bono legal representation — often for the first time since their arrest. Read more about our 2021 capital litigation work here.
“The Equal Justice Initiative continues to be energized by the level of diligence, compassion, and skill that Sidley’s lawyers demonstrate in their death penalty cases. When other law firms are reluctant to take even one capital case, we point to Sidley’s Capital Litigation Project as the example of how it can be done successfully with many clients. Sidley’s commitment to fighting for fairness and due process on behalf of people who are on death row in Alabama has created optimism for everyone concerned about justice in Alabama.”
— Randy Susskind, Deputy Director, Equal Justice Initiative
Sidley has been representing our client, Keith Gavin, a death row inmate in Alabama, since 2005. After post-conviction proceedings in Alabama, including an in-person hearing in 2010, Sidley filed a habeas petition in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama arguing, among other things, ineffective assistance of counsel during the guilt and penalty phases of the trial. In March 2020, the court issued a 179-page decision granting Sidley’s motion with respect to the penalty phase of the trial. Sidley sought a certificate of appealability from the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to pursue certain of Mr. Gavin’s guilt-phase claims on appeal. Those requests were denied. The state of Alabama appealed the district court’s grant of relief with respect to Mr. Gavin’s penalty-phase ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The briefing concluded in April 2021, and oral argument was held in February 2022.
For nearly 17 years, a cross-office team of Sidley lawyers and staff dedicated approximately 7,300 hours to helping our client, Matthew Reeves, overturn his death sentence in the state of Alabama. Matthew’s case reached a heartbreaking end on January 27, 2022.
Sidley took on Matthew’s case in 2005 as part of the firm’s Capital Litigation Project, a pro bono initiative in which our lawyers work closely with the Equal Justice Initiative to ensure that inmates incarcerated on death row have access to high-quality legal representation.
Matthew, who was intellectually disabled, was found guilty of a murder committed during the course of a robbery in 1996 at the age of 18.
Matthew and the Sidley team endured 15 years of losses in the Alabama state courts as they sought to alter his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In the fall of 2020, hope seemed within reach when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit invalidated Matthew’s death sentence, ruling that he was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of his trial.
Sadly, the victory was fleeting. In July 2021, the Supreme Court summarily reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s decision. Among the three dissenting Justices — Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor — Justice Sotomayor wrote: “The lengths to which this Court goes to ensure that Reeves remains on death row are extraordinary. … Today’s decision continues a troubling trend in which this Court strains to reverse summarily any grants of relief to those facing execution.”
Determined not to give up on Matthew’s case, the Sidley team turned their efforts to his clemency petition. Meanwhile, the Middle District of Alabama Federal Defenders Program brought a method of execution case on Matthew’s behalf under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Federal Defenders team argued that Matthew’s rights were violated because his intellectual disability did not allow for a meaningful opportunity to opt into execution by lethal gas (nitrogen hypoxia) rather than lethal injection.
Matthew’s IQ of 68, coupled with his elementary school reading skills, made it impossible for him to comprehend and complete the prison-provided form allowing inmates to select an alternative method of execution. Despite his disability, he was not provided with an accommodation that would have allowed him to understand the form and exercise his rights to opt in.
On January 26, 2022, a unanimous decision in the Eleventh Circuit upheld an injunction that had been granted earlier in the month preventing Matthew’s execution by lethal injection and instead allowing his case to proceed on the merits.
The next day, the Supreme Court once again summarily reversed his Eleventh Circuit victory, vacating the injunction and clearing the way for Matthew’s execution without a single word of explanation. Four justices dissented and would have upheld the injunction: Barrett, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor. Two hours after the ruling, Matthew was gone.